A Slow Kowtow to China

Why do celebrities and elites prostrate themselves to China while bashing America? Hmmmm ...

Dear Reader (Including deer-reader hybrids),

You know what would make a good movie? The Wuhan lab-leak theory.

I don’t mean if it were proved to be true it would make a good movie. Though, if it were proven true, that would make an even better movie.

I mean the right director could make a great film built on the premise that the virus that just killed its 600,000th American this week was the result of a terrible accident in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I’m thinking of a mix of Contagion, The Insider, and the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, with maybe a little Seven Days in May, Network, and The Lives of Others thrown in for good measure. I know that’s a lot of stuff to borrow from, but I think Steven Soderbergh or Michael Mann could pull it off.

There are so many elements to it. From the whistleblowing doctor, Li Wenliang, who died from the disease he warned the world about, to the heroic scientists who developed the vaccine, and the WHO bureaucrats who cried “racism” on China’s behalf. Then you have all of the surreal domestic political angles, from Trump and Fauci down to the pro- and anti-mask hysteria. And, of course, the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup of the whole thing.

Now, some might say that making such a movie would be dangerous,  irresponsible, or unfair. After all, the idea of a lab leak is just a theory right now.

To which I respond: So what? You know what else is just a theory? That Lyndon Johnson was part of a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy—and Oliver Stone made that movie 30 years ago this December. It got eight Academy Award nominations and won two of them. And, by the way, the lab-leak theory is very plausible. The Johnson-coup theory isn’t.

When I write “some might say” above, I use that phrase as a rhetorical device. The truth is that many would say it. And by many, I mean countless Hollywood executives, most editorial pages, movie stars, singers, and of course, NBA players.

One of the most remarkable—and remarkably corrupt—things about our culture is that it is intensely fashionable to disparage, condemn, or slander American government, American history, and America itself. It’s also equally unfashionable to even criticize China—a country with no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, and no democracy. In some circles, simply raising the fact that the Chinese politico-military nexus has a million people in a gulag archipelago of concentration camps is proof of your lack of sophistication and seriousness. Just ask Lebron James.

Major corporations have no problem signaling their fashionable wokeness by boycotting Georgia, North Carolina, or Indiana. But ask them why they do business with a country that is crushing democracy in Hong Kong and ethnically cleansing Tibet and East Turkestan, and you’ll get an answer of mumbling doublespeak. Gay people have more rights in every state in the union than they do anywhere in China. And unlike America, China actually has a real policy of Jim Crow and apartheid. 

Last year, Apple’s Tim Cook committed the company to fighting the “the fear, hurt, and outrage rightly provoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and a much longer history of racism.” Fair enough. But why is he doing so much business with a country that, according to the Global Slavery Index, has more than 3 million slaves today?

One common response to this point is that Americans should rightly care about injustice at home because we hold ourselves to a higher standard. I agree! But it’s one thing to say we hold ourselves to a higher standard; it’s quite another to say we shouldn’t hold China to any standard at all. 

Close your eyes and think of a standard your typical preening Hollywood prima donna invokes at the Oscars or on campus to condemn America. Here are a few that come to mind: free speech, democracy, police abuse, racism, reproductive freedom, corporate greed, colonialism, and corruption. (I’d throw income inequality in there too, but it’s a complicated issue. And besides, China lies about its own numbers on the economic front.)

China is worse on all of them—by a lot. Moreover, when we fall short of our standards, we are at least acknowledging those standards. China literally doesn’t even have those standards. Its policy is to deny democracy, free speech, etc. Its policy is racist. You don’t have to bother with critical race theory to explain Han supremacy, because Han supremacy is the actual policy of the country.

So sure, hold us to a higher standard. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But why abandon that standard entirely when it comes to China? Why debase yourself by heaping praise on or prostrating yourself to them? And why put so much energy into bashing America for failing to live up to standards you’re willing to abandon for ticket sales or profit margins?

There are three answers.

The first is obvious: money. Hollywood, the NBA, universities, and big business are addicted to Chinese money and markets. If John Cena inadvertently offended Luxembourg, he would not rush to protect the box office receipts from that tiny country and release a thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another videoin Luxembourgish.

The second answer is also partly about money, but partly about fashion. Hollywood, the NBA, and Apple care about the American market, too. But in America, there’s very little cost to virtue signaling at America’s expense, and there’s often money to be made from it. If Americans punished stars like Sean Penn and George Clooney for lambasting America, they’d do it less. But we have a robust culture of masochism in this country. It’s not so much that outright expressions of anti-Americanism are always rewarded, it’s that we’ve wandered into a definition of patriotism that requires obsessive harping on our shortcomings. It’s a complicated cultural dynamic, and has lots of internal contradictions that manifest themselves in weird ways depending on the context and the partisan climate.

But if you step back and look at the full picture, it’s pretty obvious. We are addicted to a kind of rebelliousness that cannot rationally account for the fact that this is a good and decent country. Where’s the courage in denouncing that? So we manufacture outrage and exaggerate existing foibles. We systemize anecdotes and reify literary and abstract indictments. We can’t have declining, rare, and vestigial racism—it has to be systemic. Police abuses can’t be anecdotal, they must be inherent to policing itself.  

The third answer is that China demands our debasement—and we comply. It began in the 1990s. In 1997, China banned Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. Pitt, his movies, his co-stars, and the studio that made the film were also banned from China for years. The following year, Disney released Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which depicted China’s brutalization of Tibet. The Chinese threw a fit and Disney honcho Michael Eisner abjectly apologized, calling the film “a form of insult to our friends.” Search Disney+ today—it’s not there.

Hollywood hasn’t made a major movie critical of China ever since. Worse, it’s chosen to censor itself rather than risk Chinese disapproval. In countless movies, the Chinese have to be depicted as generous members of the international community. Remember how China came to the rescue in The Martian? Dr. Strange couldn’t have a Tibetan monk in it, so Tilda Swinton played a Celtic mystic. And let’s not even speak of the travesty that was supposed to be a remake of Red Dawn.

Kowtow now.

Demanding obeisance has a rich history in Chinese culture. In 1793, British envoy Lord George Macartney was charged with opening permanent trade relations with China. The Chinese still clung to the old feudal demand of the kowtow. In the old days, the Chinese believed that the emperor literally ruled the world, which meant foreign rulers were more like vassals. And all vassals must acknowledge the supremacy of the emperor, the Son of Heaven. The problem was that Macartney was essentially a stand-in for the British crown, and he couldn’t in good conscience recognize the emperor as his sovereign.

Kowtowing requires three kneelings and nine prostrations—meaning the supplicant actually lies face down on the floor—in order to demonstrate total inferiority. Macartney agreed to kneel out of respect, but he wouldn’t put his head to the ground nine times.

The Chinese were offended and Britain and China didn’t get the trade deal. I bring up this anecdote for three reasons. First, it’s worth recognizing that the trade deal was in the interests of both countries. Lots of “realists” think that countries do things solely out of raw self-interest. That’s arguably true. But the definition realists use for self-interest is way too narrow. Notions of national pride and honor are also forms of self-interest.

Which brings me to the second reason. America should have some notion of honor. We don’t have a crown, but we do have certain ideas and ideals that we like to claim similar loyalty to. We also like to claim that these ideas and ideals are universal. When we figuratively kowtow to China, we are openly admitting to China that both claims are untrue—or at least negotiable. You can’t claim to believe human rights are universal and inviolable while simultaneously excusing or ignoring the mass violation of human rights that defines China under CCP rule.

Last, none of this is in our interest. It’s not like the Chinese respect us for our groveling. They enjoy watching us bend to their demands and mock our obsequious desire to gain favor as proof of their superior system. They use our self-flagellation over race as a cudgel in their propaganda and diplomacy. Such appeasement only buys greater demands and worse moral and strategic compromises.

Now, saying our principles are universal and/or superior is not a warrant for war, regime change, or anything like that. It’s simply a matter of truth-telling. You can be an abject isolationist and believe our democracy and liberal constitutional order are superior to China’s. This was—until recently—the definitional belief of American isolationism going back to the founding. Just look at Washington’s caution about entangling alliances in his farewell address, John Quincy Adams’ warning about not going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” and the misguided views of the original America First Committee. The fear was about becoming too involved in—and dependent on—foreign matters that would corrupt us here at home. The new America First-ism rests on the premise that we’re no better than places like Russia and China, and that we should stop being suckers by pretending otherwise.

I’m no isolationist—far from it. But the practice of debasing ourselves for the sake of Chinese widgets and market share is corrupting. It erodes our standing in the world, and gives weaker countries an excuse to kowtow to China too. “If America is going to kiss their ass, what choice do we have?” More importantly, it erodes our standing to ourselves and our ideals. It signals that when elites stand up for principles at home, they’re not really doing it out of conviction, but out of opportunism. If they really believed that stuff, they wouldn’t suck up to a country that makes even the worst caricatures of, say, Georgia or Texas, seem tepid.

I whiggishly believe that one day China will be a free country. And when it is, the Chinese will not look back on America today as a spiritual ally the way those who were slaughtered at Tiananmen Square did. They will see us as a country that sought approval from the regime that persecuted their ancestors for the cheap at any price of Fast and Furious 9 ticket sales.

Various & Sundry

Animal update: I can’t remember if I mentioned this before, but Gracie—arguably the greatest cat to have ever walked the earth—has been trolling Zoë a lot lately. She drinks out of her water bowl. She bars the dingo’s passage on the stairs (many dogs refuse to pass a cat on the stairs). She angles for prime spots by the humans and often takes the most coveted space in the house—a viewing position by the upstairs window. 

I assumed it was a Zoë vs. Gracie issue. And obviously it is. But I couldn’t figure out why it was happening with greater frequency over the last few months. I think I figured it out: Ralph is no longer with us, and Gracie is returning to her old habits in the ancien regime that she ruled in a co-monarchy with Cosmo the Wonderdog. Anyway, the dogs are doing just fine. Though Zoë did have an embarrassing failure this morning chasing a bunny. (Note: I do not call Zoë’s attention to bunnies unless I’m highly confident they have ample escape routes.) Pippa, meanwhile, is just Pippa

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